In my pre-coffee morning haze, before shower, pants or even sitting upright, I often find myself wondering what breakfast meat I'll have that day. I very much enjoy eating animal products, but that doesn't mean I'm married to them. Every once in a while, it's good to sneak in some earth-grown goodness to balance out my inner lion. It's a day like this that I'm grateful for Lydia's Organics.
Lydia's Organics was founded 18 years ago in Fairfax, when Lydia Kindheart opened what some tell her was California's first raw restaurant. After a hiatus due to Kindheart's refocus on catering and wholesale, it reopened nine years ago, adding cooked items to the menu of mostly raw offerings. The journey continued with a move in December 2011 to her current location in Petaluma, relaunching the restaurant to include an events center and community gathering space.
The Sunflower Center hosts classes, concerts, gatherings and a health-centered restaurant. Here, there's no need to ask—everything on the menu is vegan, gluten-free and organic. About half the menu is raw, as well, a break from the 100 percent–raw philosophy she once embraced. "I want to serve healthy food to people," says Kindheart. "And some people might not want raw foods."
Lydia's best moments are its original ones. The "famous" raw green soup ($3–$5) is an example. A cold and smooth blend of kale, avocado, cucumber, cilantro, ginger, celery, parsley, basil, lemon and dulse seaweed, it's so refreshing it may be confused for a drink. In fact, says Kindheart, many people do drink it from a glass. As for the taste? "Imagine a salad with everything in it," she says. "It makes people really feel good."
Another popular item is Sunflower's burger patty. This cooked item isn't trying to fool anyone: "I'm not meat," it screams, with its red, mushy texture and burst of earthy flavors, "but you're gonna love me just the same." Made with quinoa, carrots, beets, celery, kale, parsley, basil, herbs and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, it's extremely flavorful and soft, with a consistency between hearty paste and moist cake. The Super Burger ($9) comes with the patty, avocado and cashew "cheez," which is far better than it sounds. It's available on a house-made bun or a large, bright green buffkin ($2.50), made of spinach, kale, parsley, sprouted brown rice flour and coconut and sunflower oils. The buffkin serves not only as a light, fluffy, chlorophyll-packed way to contain the wall-to-wall health-fest within but also as an easy way to eat more nutrient-rich greens.
Reinventing well-known dishes by adding vegan substitutes can have mixed results. The Middle Eastern plate ($12.50) features an excellent Greek salad with delicious walnut "kreem" in place of feta. But dolmas made with marinated collards and raw "rice" (in quotes on the menu) are a bit too tough and stringy, and the coconut-almond hummus, paired with crackers, was a bit dry compared to most other versions.
Elsewhere on the menu, the alchemy of vegan substitution works much better. "Cheez" is a strange way to refer to the nut butters in many of Lydia's dishes; it's a spreadable, viscous plasma that Kindheart stores in squeeze bottles. Definitely not cheese, it is rich and creamy, and the flavors are complex enough to add another dimension to an entrée—or to be used as a base itself. "I always thought cheese out of a squeeze bottle was pretty awful," says Kindheart. "And I realized, 'Oh, I created one!'"
Some products are available to go: snacks like beet chips and kale chips, as well as desserts like cheez cakes, brownies, pies and more, all raw. (It's good to know there's someone who can make brownies if the power goes out for a few days). Drinks are another highlight—try the ginger lemonade ($2–$3).
The Sunflower Center is more than a restaurant, with an events calendar bustling with workshops, concerts and, in June, a hemp-history week featuring musician and actor John Trudell.
"I've always liked to bring people together," says Kindheart. Despite (or perhaps because of) the connectedness of people through social media, she says, "people are the loneliest they've ever been."
The interior is inviting, a peaceful environment where it's easy to strike up a conversation. Calm lighting, open space and friendly people are natural stress relievers, as is a session on an air chair; these one-person hammocks melt away the harping voice of a clueless boss better than any violent daydream or mocking web comic.
Between the food and atmosphere, the whole experience at Lydia's feels like an unmanned therapy session—a way to cleanse the body and refresh the head. It's a lullaby for my inner lion, letting the beast take a well-deserved rest.
Lydia's Organics and the Sunflower Center, 1435 N. McDowell Blvd., Ste. 100, Petaluma. 707.792.5300.